Wall Or No-wall? – Depth v/s Breadth In Development Initiatives

by | Mar 20, 2020

At a non-profit some time ago, I saw something that I would usually condemn! The flagship project run by the NGO received a lot of funds, but the use of these funds was never visible. At the end of a whole year I knew that the project had received enough money to solve all their problems, then why did it look exactly just the same to me? I saw the beneficiaries in just the same condition. They weren’t hugely better off than the rest of the minority they belonged to. Why so? The founders of this non-profit had thought long and carefully. Their values were not of embezzling money for their own benefits (which was actually my first assumption). They just believe so much in their cause that being at the target of value-based judgments was not a worry for them. They would use the money from this one project and put it in a new project for ten other members of the minority community.

The aim of the non-profit was not to uplift the few participants of this flagship program. Instead the aim was to uplift the entire community. They were using an approach where instead of providing 90% support to 10 out of 100 people to benefit them, they would provide 10% support to 90 out of 100 people. They wouldn’t create more disparity within the community! Making a few among the community privileged to receive the services of the NGO would only create more gaps. The flagship project was just a sample taken to show that change ‘is’ possible and the project itself was just a sample model. While focusing on depth is important, and extremely crucial to be able to address the real problems of the society, taking a larger perspective and attacking the entire breadth of a problem is also a credible technique. 

Some challenging questions that non-profits face are related to the question of breadth itself. 

  • Are the non-profits just increasing quantities of their work to get more funds? Getting more funds is actually the aim and there is hardly anything wrong about that. 
  • Are they doing it just to get famous? Being famous too is crucial to show that people support and impact is under way, how else would they share their success stories and change your hearts. 
  • Why don’t they first help those who they have started working with? Well, because the project participants aren’t stuck alone in the problem! An entire village needs to be uplifted

You build a tower and when you build three floors, it is okay to build on just twenty five meter squares but when you build ten floors, you need to increase the foundation to at least 100 meter squares, and when you build fifty floors, then you just have someone at the top, looking down at all the remaining slums and tsk-tsk-tsk-ing!

In 2013, when a few friends came to visit me from Germany, they saw the cows on the roads and clicked pictures of garbage dumps. The four trips to the mall, that evening at the movie theatre, and that fancy dinner at Choki Dhaani were not as much talked about later. These experiences didn’t feature in their travel-stories as much. Only in the passing comment that “Yes, India is not just a big village.” Political visitors, on the contrary, obviously do their homework and know about the progress of the country but what they see in the drive from the airport to the guest house is also very significant. Wouldn’t they think that the slum is the real picture and the reports they have read of the progress are just fabricated? When we too think that all the money is embezzled and do not see progress anywhere, isn’t that what we too need to be communicated to? Validation in the form of real examples? Do we travel the entire country km by km to actually survey the land, and do we even travel to the village closest to our towns to see any progress? And yet we doubt what the well-surveyed reports have to say. 

It takes twenty years to see impact said our mentor at India Fellow when I was doing the fellowship. And this impact isn’t supposed to be measured in just numbers. One could say – Why open a hundred centers, instead focus on ten centers and make them the best models. Focus on the depth and not the breadth! But to change age-old beliefs and myths, and learnt behaviour, twenty years at least is what it takes. Changing attitudes takes a lot of time. It takes all kinds of efforts and one such effort is ‘strategic communications’. Social media comes with the power to speed up the attitude changing process. Even if poverty in India has decreased significantly in the past years, it is not visible to us. The hundred success stories aren’t shared, but the one failure is shared a hundred times. If we ourselves aren’t able to appreciate the progress we have made and see the real growth, how do we expect a visitor to see it?

Disclaimer: Just the way being anti-CAA does not make me an anti-national, being pro-wall does not make me a pro-BJPier …

An excerpt from an article titled ‘Trump visit Cong says AMC building wall to mask slum area’ in The Week (accessed on 18th February 2020) …“This wall, around 500-meter-long and four feet high, has nothing to do with Trump’s visit. A wall was already there since many years. After it got dilapidated, we decided to build a new one. An online tender was also issued over a month back, much before Trump’s visit was announced.“, said Thakkar. Gujarat Congress spokesperson Manish Doshi alleged the wall was being built to hide the stark reality of people living in penury in the area.

This compound wall is surrounding our plot. The BJP government and the AMC are trying their best to hide reality from Trump. Instead of alleviating poverty, the ruling dispensation is hiding the poor by building a wall. It proves that poverty has increased manifold during the BJP’s 25-year rule in Gujarat.”

The wall under discussion here – built in Ahmedabad to cover the face of a slum enroute Donald Trump’s convoy. Image Credit: Gulf News – AP

I was recently having a conversation with a friend on how much money the government is spending on covering up slums with walls and hiding all the apparent ‘ugliness’ of the country for the visit of Donald Trump, US President. Is it a waste of money? Or is it strategic communications? How important is it to show a beautiful country to the President of another country? One could challenge, why hide something when that’s the reality? Will hiding the problems make them non-existent? But it is also true that whatever is seen by our eyes is not the whole truth. What if the problem is with five apples in a basket, you have hundred apples in total and all five are at the top of the basket. Wouldn’t one assume that there are more bad apples down below?

In 2001 3.8% of the slum population of the country lived in Gujarat, whereas in 2011 2% of the slum population was in Gujarat. From being the ninth most slum populated state in 2001, it became the twelfth most slum populated state in 2011. Narendra Modi was CM of the state from 2001 to 2012. 

We question when slums from urban areas are removed, or when there is a huge gap between the wealth of those living in the urban spaces and those in the rural areas. So the government must take an equal approach to uplift people from all areas, or if you are more of a believer in equity, you would hope for more stress in the poorer and inaccessible regions. But that doesn’t happen overnight and definitely the efforts of just one term of a ruling political party can hardly show results worth work of twenty years. They can’t take the credit and neither should they take the blame. This beautification, which is definitely not new, and a little more important than we presume – is called facelift. It helps to clean up our house and make it presentable for a visitor even if there are hollow developments that are happening. There surely is a wide gap that needs to be filled, and showing that there is little gap can provide positivity to visitors and encourage them to trust us more. Not to say that being inauthentic is the way to go, only the dialogue could start on a positive note even if the entire picture itself isn’t as positive.

India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi addressing the gathering at Motera Stadium in Ahmedabad, during US President Donald Trump’s (sitting in the background) visit to India in February 2020. Image courtesy Flickr

Earlier, during the Commonwealth Preparations, many large slums were uprooted. They were displaced. Is that better or wall-ing them up is a thought out alternative? The third alternative, yes, is to solve the problem of slums, provide them with better habitation, and is that not under process? Also would the government spend so much money to build walls around slums, when the realities of the country are all visible online? Does Trump not know about the slums and making those walls would help whom? Is the government that unaware and unmindful that it spends money on hiding something that actually doesn’t get hidden with just a wall, or are we the unaware and unmindful ones to believe the narrative of Modi making a wall to hide slums from Trump’s views?


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